Zenyatta took on all comers Saturday, but neither the Polytrack, David Flores’ gamesmanship nor a pace normally reserved for rush-hour traffic could stop the 6-year-old Street Cry mare.
She raised her record to 18-0 by becoming the first horse to win the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar three times. She’d already become the lone three-time winner of the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 13.
She keeps setting records, and yet some still continue to moan about who she’s raced against and make outlandish claims that this horse or that horse would teach her a lesson or two.
One national turf writer wrote last week that the best horse in the country was running Saturday, but he meant Quality Road and not Zenyatta. Earth to writer — Quality Road has now lost four times in 11 starts, and Zenyatta is undefeated in 18, having beaten such high-class opposition as Gio Ponti, Ginger Punch, Cocoa Beach, Life Is Sweet and St Trinians along the way.
In fact, Quality Road was beaten last fall by Summer Bird, one of the 11 males Zenyatta cruised by in the stretch on her way to making Breeders’ Cup history on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita.
Tell me this — if Zenyatta is so overrated, why is it none of those horses could beat her? Why, in 26 years, is she the only female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
Because she’s great, folks. And it’s too bad, as jockey Mike Smith said on a conference call last week, that people find the need to knock perfection.
“If things continue as they are, if we can pull two more off, as far as I’m concerned she’ll go down as the greatest horse of all time,” said Smith, her jockey for the past 15 races who was aboard for the neck victory in the Hirsch over the game 10-1 outsider Rinterval, who set a pace so slow that the race was in danger of running over into Saturday Night Live.
Closers are not supposed to win when the early splits are 25.41, 50.61 and 1:15.11 for a mile and one sixteenth. The pacesetter is supposed to keep on going to the winner’s circle. Thing is, Rinterval was running against a machine called Zenyatta, who doesn’t allow such tactics to derail her.
No, she doesn’t win by the length of the grandstand like horses with higher cruising speeds sometimes do, but she wins. Last time I looked, that’s all that matters.
“That’s just her style,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “She has such a wonderful stride and she never really hits it until the end of the race.”
Last year, when she won the Hirsch by a head, she was clocked at 40 miles per hour by track technology when she hit the wire. This year she was traveling 38.2 miles per hour.
Must have been that extra carrot she ate Saturday morning that slowed her down.
Flores, who was aboard Zenyatta for the first three races of her career, did some keen race riding as the field of six turned for home in the Hirsch. With Zenyatta and Smith closing to his right, Flores deftly allowed Dance to My Tune to float the winner about five wide into the stretch.
“I saw David kind of look back and look for me,” Smith said. “So I decided to just play it safe and just go on around and not get cute.”
Smith decided cute would play better on a different day, like maybe Nov. 6 when Zenyatta, if all goes according to plan, tries to successfully defend her title in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Until then, she’ll have one more race — either the Zenyatta/Lady’s Secret Stakes at Oak Tree in early October or the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 2. Let’s hope it’s the Beldame so she can get off these tracks that truly hold her back and show her critics just how truly great she really is.
Not that Shirreffs needs any convincing.
“She’s the best horse in the country,” he said.
Not only the best horse in the country, but also a candidate for entertainer of the year. Her dance routine in the paddock and playing to the crowd in front of the grandstand after each victory are just two elements that make up the Zenyatta mystique.
“It’s a fun thing for her,” Smith said. “She should be entertainer of the year all the time because she loves to entertain.”
And Smith is one of her biggest fans.
“I’m a fan along with those people,” he said. “I just happen to be sitting on top of her. That’s why she came back, for her fans.”
Smith, a Hall of Fame rider who has done some of his best work aboard Zenyatta, just hopes that before her career is over she’ll be truly recognized, not just in California, but all over the country for just how great she truly is.
“To me, I appreciate her more than my life itself,” he said.
Another Hall of Famer, trainer Jack Van Berg, also has an appreciation for Zenyatta.
“I’ve seen a lot of great mares in my day,” Van Berg told Jay Hovdey of The Daily Racing Form. “Ruffian was awful good. And Rachel Alexandra, you can’t take nothing away from her. But I’ve seen Zenyatta do things I’ve never seen the best colts do.
“She comes from dead last every time. She’s got in trouble, overcome obstacles. She’s never had a rabbit for her to set the race up, and she’s had paces where they were walking up there.
“I’ve watched her train from Day 1, before she even started. When she gets rolling, it seems like she’s taking her one stride to everybody else’s two or three. Last time she ran at Hollywood Park, when it looked like she was beat, it looked like she just looked over at that other filly and took off that last little bit.”
That “other filly” was St Trinians, another of those tomato cans that Zenyatta keeps beating. Yes, the same St Trinians who defeated 2009 Ladies’ Classic champion Life Is Sweet, whom Zenyatta treated like a kid sister each time they squared off against each other during the 2009 campaign.
When Zenyatta scored victory No. 17 in the Vanity, not only did she catch St Trinians when it appeared at the sixteenth pole that she was beaten, but she also beat a horse named Zardana. Another of those tomato cans she keeps beating.
You remember Zardana, right? Beat a filly by the name of Rachel Alexandra back in March at the Fair Grounds.
In horse racing, you must be careful which cans you go around kicking.